Ari Berman is an excellent political writer over at The Nation. And on Monday, he asked a really good question, Republicans Used to Support Voting Rights—What Happened? He looked at at a new book by Todd Purdum, An Idea Whose Time Has Come. And he provided a little rundown of the Republican Party. He noted that in the past a number of prominent Republicans were big advocates for civil and voting rights. But aggravatingly, he never answers his own question, “What happened?”
Luckily, I already know the answer. I addressed it last year, I Love Democracy. Conservatives of all stripes have always had deep unease with the idea of democracy. This is due to the fact that conservatism is an elite political philosophy. And as such, the philosophy is deeply unpopular. Have you ever looked at those two-dimensional graphs of political ideology? The opposite of “libertarian” is “populism.” The conservative approach to this unpleasant fact is first to manipulate popular opinion. (See: What’s the Matter With Kansas?) And their second approach is to stop the poor from voting.
Last year, Corey Robin noticed a very telling bit of conservative apologetics, I Am Not a Racist. I Just Hate Democracy. In The New Republic, Sam Tanenhaus wrote, Why the GOP Is and Will Continue to be the Party of White People. In it, he argued that the modern conservative movement had borrowed liberally from the arguments of the 19th century slavery apologists, most especially John C Calhoun. Unsurprisingly, modern conservatives were not too keen on this being pointed out.
So Jonah Goldberg and Ramesh Ponnuru took to National Review to defend themselves. Now, you know how I feel: the conservative movement is deeply committed to racism. It is about all they’ve got. But I understand that actual conservatives (especially smart ones like Ramesh Ponnuru) have to avoid seeing that. But in their response they provide what Robin calls “a fascinating moment of right-wing self-revelation.” In arguing that they really aren’t racist, they take it as given that being against democracy is no big deal:
They are saying that they would have no problem with Tanenhaus if he simply called them elitist who are against democracy. They don’t see the criticism in saying that they “resist, ignore, or even overturn the will of the electoral majority.” That’s astounding.
The reason that the 1960s had some prominent Republicans who supported civil and voting rights is very simple: there were liberals in the Republican Party. The conservatives in both parties at that time were not keen on voting rights. And all those conservatives are now in the Republican Party. They aren’t for expansive civil rights because they were never for them. Party labels don’t always matter. But today, “Republican” and “conservative” are synonymous.